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Best traditional albums of 2000

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Earle Hitchner

This past year has not been a good one for Irish traditional music. It’s not that there hasn’t been a wealth of excellent recordings. There has, including the top 10 chosen here.

But the post-"Riverdance" boom for the genre in the mainstream marketplace is essentially over. In recent years the trend has been away from Celtic music, which has lost some commercial clout but still sells solidly, and toward Latin, African, or Afro-Cuban music, which was partly sparked by 1997’s acclaimed "Buena Vista Social Club" album and has led to the formation of the Latin Grammy Awards. This market shift has also benefited Celtic bands with a hybrid, exotic sound, such as the Afro Celt Sound System, Sin É, and Kíla.

The apparent slippage in mainstream media consideration of Celtic traditional music hasn’t helped matters. USA Today, the New York Observer, the Wall Street Journal, and MTV’s Sonicnet.com (the last two of which I write for), for example, have all ignored Celtic traditional releases in their critics’ lists of the best albums from 2000.

Of the four popular-music critics (Jon Pareles, Ann Powers, Ben Ratliff, and Neil Strauss) at the New York Times, only Powers slipped an Irish traditional release into her list of 10 "Undeservedly Obscure" albums. At No. 5, she slotted Seán Ó Riada’s "Ó Riada’s Farewell" (Claddagh/Atlantic), a CD reissue of an LP comprising harpsichord music that was released almost 30 years ago. Does this mean there was no other Irish traditional recording worth noting from the year 2000?

Hardly, as this Irish Echo list of the top 10 Irish traditional albums clearly shows. CD reissues of LPs were not considered, though CDs bringing together scattered vintage material factor strongly among spanking new releases. Worthy of any critic’s "best of" list, the following recordings reflect the vitality and virtuosity of Irish traditional music released last year and, in one case, the year before.

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1. BAD TURNS AND HORSE-SHOE BENDS, by Harry Bradley (Outlet): Despite many outstanding performances captured on record, this Belfast-based label has chronically suffered from mediocre production often born, frankly, of rushing the process. Here, production is fairly good, while the flute playing of Harry Bradley is utterly sublime and ranks with the finest studio performances in Outlet’s history. Accompanied by Davy Graham on mandocello, Séamus O’Kane on bodhrán, and former Déanta member Eóghan O’Brien on guitar and harp, Bradley plays concert, E-flat, F, and marching band flutes with perfectly balanced force and finesse. An unscheduled "hit" two years ago at Donegal’s Frankie Kennedy Winter School, where I first saw him perform, this Belfast-born musician has made an astonishingly mature, musically rich solo debut that immediately places him within the front ranks of all Irish flutists alive. It is a magnificent achievement by a talent destined for international recognition.

2. ELIZABETH CROTTY: CONCERTINA MUSIC FROM WEST CLARE (RTÉ Music Ltd.): Born in Gower, near Cooraclare, West Clare, Elizabeth Crotty (1885-1960) was an unflagging supporter of Irish traditional music in general and one of its most skilled concertinists in particular. The pub she and her husband operated in Kilrush was a second home to many musicians, and her own fame rose in the mid-1950s on the strength of RTÉ broadcasts made from it. This 1999 album consists of 31 splendid tracks captured on a mobile recording unit during the last five years of her life. Though in her 70s at the time, Elizabeth Crotty displays a vigor and lissome touch in her playing that would be the envy of musicians half her age. There are 19 memorable solos here, including her stunning rendition of "The Wind That Shakes the Barley/The Reel With the Beryl." On the remaining tracks she’s joined by such fellow legends as fiddlers Paddy Canny, Aggie White, Denis Murphy, and Seán Reid and flutist Mike Preston.

3. THE SONGS OF ELIZABETH CRONIN, edited by Dáibhí Ó Cróinín (Four Courts Press): Piper and broadcaster Séamus Ennis called her the "Queen of Irish Song," and this 332-page trade paperback, in which two compact disks of her singing have been inserted, stands as a towering testament to her importance within Ireland’s long vocal tradition. Compiled and edited by her grandson, the book offers a 21-page biography of Elizabeth "Bess" Cronin (1879-1956), followed by 196 songs she sang whose verses have been set down and annotated, often with melodies transcribed beside them. The two CD’s contain 59 songs sung by the Macroom, West Cork, vocalist from 1947 to 1955 that were taken from public and private recordings made by Séamus Ennis, Alan Lomax, Jean Ritchie and George Pickow, and Diane Hamilton, among others. This is Irish traditional singing at its most unvarnished and vital.

4. THE ROAD FROM CONNEMARA, by Joe Heaney (Topic/Cló Iar-Chonnachta Teo): Carna, Galway-born Joe Heaney (1919-1984) was the consummate master of sean-nós, or "old style," singing, an unaccompanied vocal style that’s rhythmic, ornamented, and intimate. What this two-CD release of previously unissued material provides is wonderful songs and engaging comments and anecdotes by the sean-nós singer that deepen the appreciation of his art. The 39 tracks were culled from interviews conducted with Heaney in 1964 by husband-and-wife folksingers Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger at their home in England. Completing the package is a 59-page booklet, detailing the life and music of a sean-nós singer unsurpassed in influence. Favorite track: "Cúnnla," both for Heaney’s impressive singing and for the droll remarks he makes at beginning and end.

5. LÁMH AR LÁMH (Mater Misericordi’ Hospital, c/o John Daly, Postgraduate Medical Ctr., 52 Eccles St., Dublin 7, Ireland, e-mail: music@mater.ie): The "many hands" involved in this double CD make for long, thoroughly enjoyable work — all in an effort to raise funds for colon cancer research at Mater Misericordi’ Hospital in North Dublin.

This is a prime example of a great cause inspiring great music, 35 tracks recorded expressly for the project under the guidance of fiddler Antóin Mac Gabhann. The first CD includes two sterling selections each by the trio of Chieftains’ fiddler Seán Keane, uilleann piper Liam O’Flynn, and guitarist Arty McGlynn, and by the duo of concertinist Noel Hill and keyboardist Brian McGrath. The second CD captures the essence of the house dance — in this case, inside the Ashbourne, Co. Meath, home of Bernie and Antóin Mac Gabhann on April 1, 2000. The exciting dance music and pounding set-dance steps virtually put you there, and the singing of "An Tlolrach Mór" by 15-year-old Nollaig Ní Laoire and "Blackwaterside" by Solas’s Deirdre Scanlan, and the lilting of Cavan’s Séamus Fay, are just as exceptional.

6. LOST IN THE LOOP, by Liz Carroll (Green Linnet): To some un-Q-tipped ears, I suppose, this album comes across as the sound of Solas (Win Horan, John Doyle, and producer Seamus Egan) with Liz Carroll front and center on fiddle. It’s not. But even if it were, so what? Wisely heeding her own muse, Carroll wanted to open up and expand the sound of this recording, which comes a dozen years after her last, spare solo effort for Green Linnet, and she succeeds beautifully. The high standard of creativity and musicianship offered by three Solas members (plus Zan McLeod, Michael Aharon, Altan’s Dáithí Sproule, and frequent Solas sidemen Chico Huff and John Anthony) is a marvelous complement – and compliment — to the high standard of Irish fiddling by Carroll. This Chicagoan has a bowing technique second to none, as her blazing fiddling on "The Silver Spear/The Earl’s Chair/The Musical Priest" proves, while her playing of "Letter to Peter Pan," one of 13 tunes she wrote and recorded here, reveals a soulful simplicity. With this recording, Liz Carroll is firmly back in the loop.

7. THE HOUR BEFORE DAWN, by Solas (Shanachie): Some armchair doomsaying greeted this fourth studio recording by Solas, their first without celebrated lead singer Karan Casey. No such musical collapse occurred.

If anything, the band made bolder strides, punching up the percussion and rhythm, assaying tighter, more intricate arrangements, and covering "I Will Remember You," a monster hit song for Sarah McLachlan that was co-written by Solas’s Seamus Egan. New lead vocalist Deirdre Scanlan nimbly avoids the pitfall of difference for difference’s sake while bringing a freshness to that song and the traditional "Bruach na Carraige Baine." The band’s trademark fire on dance tunes still blazes, especially on "The New Custom House/The Flavor of the Month/The Tinker’s Daughter/Dogs Among the Bushes/Pinch of Snuff." Win Horan’s fiddling on the Norwegian slow air "A Little Child" is a performance that renders words useless, as any great instrumental should do. The album’s lone bad stumble is "A Miner’s Life," sung by John Doyle.

8. THE FIDDLE MUSIC OF DONEGAL, VOL. 3 (Cairdeas): During the first October weekend of 1999, inside the Highlands Hotel run by the Boyle family in Glenties, Co. Donegal, the session among musicians was at full throttle after the wedding reception for Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh and Dermot Byrne. That night, I thought I may have heard the greatest unsung fiddler in Ireland perform, Derry-born Dermot McLaughlin, a self-effacing musician who earns his living as an arts officer in Dublin. I was not alone in my assessment of McLaughlin’s skill, which graces the first five tracks on this album. It’s the third installment in a superb recording series produced by Rab Cherry and sponsored by Cairdeas na bhFidiléirí, an organization founded in the early 1980s to nurture Donegal fiddling. Metal fiddles once occupied an important place in Donegal’s musical culture, and hearing McLaughlin play a tin fiddle made in the 1930s by Glencolmcille fiddler Mickey "The Miner" Byrne on "The Wedding Jig" is a rare treat. Recorded live in the summers of 1997 and 1999, the album showcases six talented fiddlers steeped in the Donegal style: McLaughlin, John Byrne, Derek McGinley, Matthew McGranahan, and the father-son tandem of Jimmy and Peter Campbell.

9. SAFFRON AND BLUE, by Manus McGuire (Green Linnet): If music is the universal language, then Manus McGuire speaks fluently in many traditional tongues on his long-awaited first solo recording. This Offaly-born, Sligo-raised, Clare-based fiddler plays the French-Canadian quadrille "Le Vingt-Quatre de Juin" with a lively square-dance swing, and in "The Methlick Style/Bobby Tulloch’s Reel/Rhoda’s Bon Hoga," he and Shetland fiddler Trevor Hunter take the listener on a marvelous mood progression from ruminative to rousing. Nine of the tunes are Manus’s own, and the one he wrote for his wife, "Genevieve’s Waltz," radiates romance and is a compelling argument for why he and his older brother, Séamus, have been "accused of bringing the waltz back into favor in Irish music" (Manus’s words). There’s also a stunning tribute by Manus, "Billy Brocker’s/Tom Ward’s Downfall/The Torn Jacket/The Liffey Banks/Lucy Campbell," to all the great Sligo fiddlers inspiring him. Using subtle, tightly detailed ornamentation and impeccably clean rhythm, he has fashioned a solo album that speaks volumes.

10. ANOTHER SKY, by Altan (Virgin/Narada World): Commercial concessions? That question dogged this new Altan recording, heavily skewed toward songs (8 of 13 album tracks) and featuring such non-trad guests as Bonnie Raitt and Jerry Douglas. Was all of that done to make the album more promotable in the mainstream marketplace? Who cares? The only question that matters is whether the music holds up and meets the lofty standard Altan has always set for itself, and that it surely does.

Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh’s lovely voice on eight songs is an eminently pleasurable experience, though the band’s rendition of "Girl From the North Country," a song from Bob Dylan’s "Freewheelin’" days in 1963, is a misstep. But even when they use the non-trad licks of Bonnie Raitt on slide guitar (one track) and Jerry Douglas on dobro (two tracks), they’re carefully blended into the mix, not shoehorned in. The Irish traditional instrumental sound of Altan is as rigorously hard-core as ever, abetted by bodhrán player Jimmy Higgins on two medleys of reels and a set of jigs. "Another Sky," though not as magnetic as some of Altan’s previous albums, captures one of Ireland’s most accomplished bands in estimable form.

NEXT WEEK: The Irish Echo’s traditional musician of the year and the rest of the best albums from 2000, plus the finest concert, radio program, children’s recording, and "greatest hits" compilation, as well as five discs that belong on a desert island — unpopulated.

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